Just as eating a balanced diet requires an endless series of good choices, so does writing a successful mystery. And just like anyone else, we authors are constantly tempted by junk. It’s true: When crafting a story or chapter, you can opt for the cheap, first-thing-to-hand alternative, or you can push yourself toward something that may be less convenient, but that will ultimately be more fulfilling for both you and your readers.
Think of it this way: As an author, you’re feeding your readers. Those readers come to a mystery hungry for certain elements, and they expect to feel satisfied at the end. They don’t want formulaic, predictable stories that are the equivalent of fast food; they want substance, flavor, verve and originality. If you want to keep them coming back for seconds, you need to nourish them with quality prose, cooked up with skill and caring.
Here’s how to make smart choices in your writing (with apologies to the Eat This, Not That diet book) when it comes to the five key ingredients readers expect from a juicy mystery.
A coincidence that arises organically from a solid plot.
EXAMPLE: In Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, a crucial plot point is protagonist Ben Marco finding out that he isn’t the only member of his platoon having strange recurrent nightmares about garden club ladies who morph into Communist officers. This is key because it’s the first evidence that the soldiers have been brainwashed. Condon crafted the story so that Marco learns of another soldier’s dreams when his platoon leader, Raymond Shaw, mentions a letter he received from the soldier. Better still, when Shaw reveals the key information in the letter, he does so without realizing its significance. The reader puts two and two together, right along with Marco—and is completely hooked. If Marco had just happened to meet another nightmare sufferer somehow, readers may have had a hard time suspending their disbelief.
A contrived coincidence that has nothing to do with what came before.
A prime example is the off-duty detective who just happens to be walking past the abandoned warehouse at the precise moment the torture gets going on the abducted coed.
HOW TO DO IT: Mystery writers are constantly tempted to solve a plot problem by putting in a coincidence. After all, mysteries tend to have complex plots, and complex plots are challenging to write.
Fortunately, readers love coincidences—provided they work. Life is full of real ones, so to turn your back on them in your writing would be to reject a reasonable plotting technique. The key is to generate realistic coincidences rather than contrived ones that will leave readers rolling their eyes. So how do you do it?
You’ll find that organic coincidences will suggest themselves if you populate your story with enough strong, varied characters. Let’s say you have a damsel in distress—that coed in the warehouse, bound and gagged by the bad guy. You need this exciting scene; your plot relies on her survival. Some of your most interesting possibilities hinge on the characters themselves. Take the bad guy, for instance. What if there’s more than one? What if one of them is holding a secret grudge against the leader? Can you immediately see where this could go?
Or, rather than drawing on your villains, say you want a hero to stop by and bust up the party. Make this more than a ploy to get your damsel out of trouble: Make it a real subplot that twines throughout the story.
For example, perhaps the building has been scheduled for an inspection. The inspector knows the building is a blight and has been fighting with the mayor to get it torn down; the bad guy knows the building is a perfect hideout. The plots about the inspector and the bad guy (who, let’s say, were best friends in high school but haven’t met in years) can be parallel and separate, with the building being the piece in common. This way, you can make both characters converge on the scene at the same time, resulting in a natural coincidence. Written just so, the arrival of the building inspector with the bolt cutters will make readers slap their foreheads and go, “Oh, yeah, the building inspection! Oh boy, what’s gonna happen next?”
2. DYNAMIC DESCRIPTIONS
A description based in unconventional comparison.
EXAMPLE: “More cop cars pulled up, more cops came in, until it looked like they’d been spread on with a knife.” (This from my first novel, Holy Hell.)
A description you’ve read a dozen times: “The place was crawling with cops.”
I almost think I became a crime fiction author so I could write books without using the sentence, “The place was crawling with cops,” thus proving it can be done.
HOW TO DO IT: I believe many aspiring mystery writers fall into clichéd descriptions because of the genre’s deep roots in pulp, work-for-hire and cheap magazines. These outlets served, it must be admitted, less-than-discriminating audiences. (The Twinkie eaters of mystery readers, metaphorically.) Today’s mystery readers demand better.
Constantly be on the lookout for clichés in your writing. Welcome the occurrence of a cliché in your rough draft, because now you’ve got an opportunity to show off!
I learned from bestselling author Betty MacDonald (The Egg and I, among other golden oldies) to compare people with nonhuman entities, and nonhuman entities with people. She wrote things like, “As evening fell, the mountain settled her skirts over the forest.” That’s a great technique, a terrific cliché-buster.
Let’s say you’re describing a man who storms into a room, and you just wrote, “He was like a bull in a china shop.” You stop in horror, hand to your mouth with the realization: I have just written a cliché.
Brainstorm other comparisons as well as other contexts for your description. What if he was like a garbage truck with no brakes? What if he was like a ballplayer driven insane by the worst call he’d ever seen? What if (simply describing what he does) he tears off his shirt, and the sound of the popping buttons is like a burst from an Uzi?
3. FALSE CLUES
A red herring that’s built into the plot from the get-go.
EXAMPLE: Agatha Christie did it beautifully in her famous short story “The Witness for the Prosecution,” which later became a classic Billy Wilder film. The protagonist, Leonard Vole, is on trial for murder. He’s a sympathetic character, and you find yourself rooting for him from the beginning. The evidence against him is circumstantial but heavy; even his wife testifies against him.
The wife is the red herring. She appears to be trying to send him to jail; she says she hates him and presents marvelous evidence for the prosecution. You begin to focus on her, wondering, gosh, what’s her angle? Dame Agatha stokes your high suspicion. All of a sudden, however, Mrs. Vole’s testimony is discredited, and Vole goes free. Aha, you think, I was right: She had it in for him!
But then (spoiler alert!), in a wonderful twisted ending, the wife reveals that she’d been working for that result all along; she herself provided the discred-iting evidence, knowing the jury would be more easily manipulated that way. We learn that Vole had indeed committed the murder. Because our attention had been drawn to the wife, the heart-clutching moment when we learn of Vole’s guilt is the stuff mystery readers long for.
A false clue that’s isolated.
In too many amateur mysteries, we get red herrings like a creepy next-door neighbor who turns out to be a good guy. You know you’re being cheaply manipulated when you realize the neighbor has nothing to do with the plot; he appears solely to frighten us from time to time.
HOW TO DO IT: Mystery writers are always in need of red herrings to shake readers off the scent. A terrific test for these false clues is to ask yourself: “If I removed this clue from the story, would I have to change anything else to accommodate the cut?” If the answer is no, you’ve got some work to do.
Let’s say you’ve got multiple suspects in your murder mystery. One is the proverbial creepy next-door neighbor who someone reports having heard arguing with the victim the night of the crime (of course, he’ll later be revealed to be innocent). This is a typical false clue to plant; readers have seen it before. So, why not expand the clue to give it some deeper roots—say, by making the argument part of a long-running feud, one that’s now taken up by the victim’s family members who’ve shown up for the funeral? Suddenly this isn’t an isolated clue, but a part of the story.
You might also further consider the neighbor character himself. What if he is revealed to have been the victim’s first husband? Did he kill her out of jealousy? Or did he rent the house next door so that he could protect her because he loved her so truly? Characterizations like this can turn an ordinary red herring into a satisfying subplot.
4. ACTION-PACKED DIALOGUE
Dialogue that arises from action, emotion or necessity.
EXAMPLE: One of my favorite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories is the Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, which is packed with textbook dialogue. Here’s the character Jack McMurdo responding with calculated disbelief to a workingman’s offhanded comment that a gang called the Scowrers is a murderous bunch. Thus he goads the man into giving him specifics:
“You! I vould never had had you in my house if I had known it …”
“What’s wrong with the order? It’s for charity and good fellowship. The rules say so.”
“Maybe in some places. Not here!”
“What is it here?”
“It’s a murder society, that’s vat it is.”
McMurdo laughed incredulously. “How can you prove that?” he asked.
“Prove it! Are there not 50 murders to prove it? Vat about Milman and Van Shorst, and the Nicholson family. … Prove it! Is there a man or a voman in this valley vat does not know it?” …
“That’s just gossip—I want proof!” said McMurdo.
“If you live here long enough, you vill get your proof.”
Not only does this passage give McMurdo the information he’s looking for, it also advances the story in a natural way.
Dialogue in which one character tells another something they both already know, just so the reader can know it as well.
We’ve all read stuff like this:
Sidekick: “How come?”
Hero: “Because we’ve got to sabotage that convoy!”
Sidekick: “You mean the one that’s carrying 40,000 gallons of deadly radioactive bacteria straight toward the vulnerable entry point in the New York City water system?”
Hero: “Exactly! Yes!”
HOW TO DO IT: Weak dialogue in mystery can often be pinned on the easy habit of telling too much too soon. Did you notice that in the above example, McMurdo learns a lot (and tells a lot about himself) simply from the way he reacts to something the other man said? Having a character make friends with another for a specific purpose can work well; the reader can pick up on the manipulation and enjoy it.
Masterful writers have long known that emotion is a great dialogue engine. When a character is outraged, or dying to get laid, or seeking pity or admiration, that’s when she might let something slip, or unleash a whole tirade, which can trigger explosive action, be it a counter-tirade from another character, violence, flight, you name it.
You can engineer a juicy hunk of dialogue by writing down the result you want, then setting up a convincing sequence of events for the characters to reach that point. Expect dialogue to be a springboard for your characters.
And finally, here’s a rule of thumb I’ve found transformative: When in doubt, cut the talk.
5. CHARACTER MOTIVATIONS
Characters motivated by almost unbearable forces.
EXAMPLE: In “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, one of the most perfect short stories ever written—and one of the scariest—maternal grief is the reason Mrs. White interferes with fate and meddles with the terrible three-wish charm.
After receiving this supposedly magic paw and wishing upon it for 200 pounds sterling, she and her husband come into the money, but they are horrified to get it as compensation for the death of their son Herbert, who is mangled to death at work. Mrs. White, deep in grief, begs her husband to wish upon the paw for their son to be alive again. He reluctantly does so. But he had seen what was left of Herbert—who has been in his grave for a week—and now something is pounding at the front door, and there’s one more wish left in the paw.
Character motivation that boils down to … not enough.
“Um, see, he wants to keep the streets safe.”
Wanting to help strangers may be a plausible motivation for lying, but not for murder.
HOW TO DO IT: Making your characters take drastic risks is good, but this works only if their motivations are rock-solid. In fact, the biggest favor a good agent or editor or writing group will do for you is challenge your character motivations. Internal motivation can work, but external motivation is better.
For example, it’s conceivable a cop or a P.I. could risk his life to find the truth because he loves the truth—but if the truth involves finding out why his partner was murdered in cold blood, as Sam Spade felt driven to do in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, now you’ve got something.
Do like Hammett did: Combine motivating factors. Not simply love, not simply money, but love and money. Hate and glory. Envy and shame. Sex and loss.
The possibilities are limitless. And, as with so many of the healthy writing choices listed above, you’ll find substantial combinations to be much more satisfying than quick and easy fixes. Feed your readers with them well, and they’ll keep coming back for more.
Want to write a mystery novel that will sell? Consider:
Writing And Selling Your Mystery
Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings, Middles & Ends
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint
Writer’s Digest No More Rejections
Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner
Writer’s Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer’s Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer’s Digest 10 Years of Writer’s Digest on CD: 2000-2009